San Juan Island
Title: FIELD DRESSES
To honor the women of Gee’s Bend, I set out to make a quilt of field dresses – dresses worn in the cotton fields in the early and mid-1900s, cotton fields worked by women who descended from slaves brought to Gee’s Bend to work those very fields. I saw a poignant symmetry in the prick of the cotton boll on bare hands and the prick of a sewing needle pushed through obstinate scraps of cotton. How had these women, long bound to cotton, too often in severe poverty, come to create such blindingly audacious quilts? Quilts that were “artless” — that were first and foremost and always for necessity. For warmth. For simple, essential warmth.
When I first conceived of my quilt, my mother, at 90, was still alive. After her death this past October, and with the onset of winter, I finally began to cut and sew the field dresses. My plan was to use fabric from generations of hand-sewn baby clothes saved by my mother, little simple thin white dresses and open-fronted tiny shirts.
Within a day, my plan began to unravel. I cut into the fragile white cotton and saw that the fabric was too thin, too translucent. And I couldn’t feel how to fashion the dresses I imagined … the dresses wanted to be smaller, for children, for girls.
And so, I made dresses instead for the girls of Gee’s Bend, generations of girls who worked in the fields, girls who grew up to be women. These are entirely unremarkable dresses. Dresses that had been handed down, worn over and over again, sun-bleached, stained from life, mended, washed until dim and dull, and then washed yet again.
In lieu of my little heirloom baby clothes, I turned to other cotton, from old family table runners, linens, fabric not as thin, as precious as a dress I had worn as a 3-year-old. I used a mixed-up collection of cloth that had felt right to the touch.
Within the origin of the word “conversation” is the sense of “living among, familiarity, intimacy.”
As I cut and sewed these dresses, after my mother’s death, an unplanned conversation with Gee’s Bend began. In the physical absence of my mother, I found myself following her into memories of a place.
Although she had lived in California for decades, in the same house for 50+ years, she seemed to lose track of California. Commenting upon the skies, she’d say: “We don’t see skies like these in Georgia.” The trees: “We don’t see trees like these in Georgia.” She imagined we would send her back to be buried in Georgia – not in the plot that had been awaiting her in California for 34 years, next to my sister and then later, my father.
My mother was born in 1927 and grew up in a small Georgia town. Her own parents spent their lives there, and in surrounding farming communities, as did her parents’ parents, and their parents, and generations of aunts, uncles, cousins.
During my young childhood summers, in the early 1950s, my parents would drive my brother and me from my father’s small hometown in north Georgia and put us on the train in Atlanta – four years old, six years old – to travel alone to my mother’s parents, with a shoe box of fried chicken and an Almond Joy to share. We were awakened each time by the conductor when we arrived in the dark at a tiny speck of a train station.
During the time of my mother’s growing up, her mother and grandmothers’ growing up, and my own earliest years, this rural bit of Georgia and Gee’s Bend shared rural isolation. But it wasn’t until I looked at a map that I realized they were neighbors of a sort, being within 350 miles of each other, east to west. With this geographical proximity, they shared the simple elements of the earth. The air, drenched in hot southern humidity unstinted by air conditioning, all the scents carried in that heavy air. The weather, the squall of thunderstorms moving east to west, west to east. The dirt itself, the so-called Black Belt of soil that forms a crescent through Alabama into Georgia. Sounds were shared, as were insects, birds, trees, crops, flowers, foods, baked earth, love of still water, and fear of water moccasins. For a child, all these are breathtakingly present and real, bare feet in baked dirt.
And so, these dresses also stand in for the girl I was at 5 years old, the girl my mother was at 5, the girl my grandmother was. When we were neighbors of the earth with Gee’s Bend girls, and their mothers and their grandmothers.